DOMA’s gone: How will that affect federal employees?

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Cory Bennett and Colby Hochmuth co-authored this story.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down Defense of Marriage Act, in what could be an exciting, but challenging, opportunity for the federal government to embrace fair employment.

Before Wednesday, federal employees in same-sex marriages or civil unions weren’t extended the same rights as those in “traditional” marriages; they couldn’t be on health insurance plans, file taxes jointly or receive survivor and other benefits.

That all changed Wednesday.

According a 2004 Congressional Budget Office report, there are 1,138 statutory provisions in which marital status of the individual is a factor in determining eligibility for “benefits, rights and privileges.”

John Palguta, vice president of policy and research at the Partnership for Public Service, says this ruling will likely have a positive impact on employee productivity.

“As an employer, it’s all about employee engagement,” he said. “We know from our analysis, one of the things that promotes more employee engagement is when they feel they’re being treated equally.”

The 2004 CBO report also points out the slight positive effect the ruling could have on the economy. Recognizing same-sex marriages would boost total federal tax revenues by roughly $500 million per year; less than 0.1 percent of total U.S. revenue. The CBO report did, however, assume gay marriage was both recognized by the federal government and legalized in all 50 states. In addition to the possible minimal economic boost, the ruling will lessen the tax burden on same-sex couples, while making same-sex spouses eligible for more benefits.

The military offers some of the more generous spousal benefits packages. Less than two years after first allowing gay individuals to serve openly in the military, the Defense Department was quick to say it would be following procedures to expand these spousal benefits to same-sex military partners.

“The Department of Defense welcomes the Supreme Court’s decision today on the Defense of Marriage Act,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a statement. “The Department of Defense intends to make the same benefits available to all military spouses — regardless of sexual orientation — as soon as possible. That is now the law, and it is the right thing to do.”

Logistically, this means allowing same-sex military spouses to apply for military identification cards, which are needed to enroll for benefits. DOD estimates the process will take six to 12 weeks and likely come with a price tag, although there has been no official cost estimate.

“The law of the land has just changed, and we will now, as quickly as possible, assess what that means,” said Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey at a Wednesday press briefing. “I’m sure there will be some cost, but we’ll figure it out, because we’ll follow the law of the land.”

But the 12-week delay could leave some military same-sex couples in limbo. It’s unclear whether benefits will be granted retroactively to the date of the Supreme Court’s ruling, or to the date the program is finally implemented. And it’s unclear whether the Pentagon will extend any benefits to same-sex domestic partnerships.

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wrote a memo just before leaving his position in February the overturn of DOMA would cause the Pentagon to consider “whether unmarried same-sex domestic partnerships should be a basis for eligibility for benefits in the future.”

And further down the road, the patchwork of state laws on same-sex marriage could cause issues for veterans’ surviving spouses benefits. Veterans’ benefits are determined based on the laws in the state where the couple lived when married or when the right to benefit accrues.

In general, federal agencies use different standards to determine a marriage’s eligibility for benefits. While that will pose convoluted legal and accounting questions, the influx and same-sex couples into the federal databases won’t present a significant challenge.

“The mechanics of adding the spouses into the system will be minor,” Palguta said. “People get married and divorced every day; it’s only a matter of going into the system and changing it.”

But states are legalizing gay marriage at a quickening page. By Aug. 1 of this year, roughly 59 million people will live in states that have legalized gay marriage, meaning the availability of same-sex marriage as a percentage of population will have more than doubled in just one year. Which means more marriages and more decisions the government must make about spousal benefits. And for Palguta, that means more analysis will be needed.

“The Office of Personnel Management has acknowledged they will need to do an analysis,” he said. “It is unclear what will happen to couples married in a state that acknowledges same-sex marriages and move to a state that doesn’t. And I think that’ll be something that we’ll figure out over time as this starts to take effect.”

-In this Story-

Agencies, Chuck Hagel, Department of Defense (DOD), Departments, Government IT News, John Palguta, Leon Panetta, Martin Dempsey, Military, Office of Personnel Management (OPM), workforce
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